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VOLPONE, OR THE FOX
by BEN JONSON
directed by JESSE BERGER
Monday, June 14, 2021 | 7:30 PM EDT
Directed by Jesse Berger
with emendations & elaborations by Jesse Berger and Jeffrey Hatcher
Featuring André De Shields AS VOLPONE | Jordan Boatman | Sofia Cheyenne | Franchelle Stewart Dorn | Clifton Duncan | Amy Jo Jackson | Peter Francis James | Hamish Linklater | Roberta Maxwell | Sam Morales | Mary Testa
Visual Design by John Arnone
Costume Design by Rodrigo Muñoz
From original designs by Clint Ramos
Original Music & Sound Design by Scott Killian
Property design by Faye Armon-Troncoso
Meet Volpone, the rich old magnifico, whose ingenious schemes and farcical scams dupe his wealthy friends into showering him with gold. This feast of extraordinary language and outrageous characters is a merciless satire that delightfully skewers the selfish manipulations of hypocrites—without excusing the greed and gullibility of their victims. Against scoundrels cloaked in propriety and legal dodgings, the virtuous are practically defenseless—and even the judge is on the make. Is Volpone the sly fox...or the outfoxed?
VOLPONE will premiere LIVE on Monday, June 14 A recording of that livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, June 18 – then it disappears.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Jonson set most of his comedies in early modern London, but for Volpone he chose Venice. In the Renaissance, Venice was a wealthy center of trade where luxury products from the East made their way into Europe, but it was also famous for its Republican political structures, its art and its courtesans. In Volpone, Jonson used Venice to signify both wealth and moral decadence.
The play opens with the main character, Volpone, making a rapturous speech to his gold. Nearly every other character is also in thrall to this “dumb god,” and to attain more and more wealth these Venetians are ready to prostitute their wives, disinherit their sons and defile their honor. The action of Volpone exposes and satirizes the actions of its avaricious characters, but it does so with dazzling ingenuity. The play is dominated by a magnificent con artist, Volpone, and his tricky servant Mosca. Together they dupe the well-off doctors, lawyers and merchants of Venice into giving rich gifts to Volpone, who pretends to be near death, in the hope that one of them can become his heir. Jonson underscores the predatory logic of the play by playing with the conventions of the beast fable in which the actions of humans are figured by animals. Volpone’s name means “fox,” and he is visited by the lawyer Voltore or “vulture,” the merchant Corvino or “crow,” and a rich old miser named Corbaccio or “raven.” Just as in nature when a fox pretends to be dead in order to attract birds of prey that the fox then snatches in its jaws, so Volpone, feigning every manner of illness, lays in wait for the human birds who circle around his “deathbed.” In all his scams Volpone is brilliantly helped and guided by Mosca, whose name means “fly,” a carrion-loving insect. Mosca is one of Jonson’s great creations, a figure who can play any part, assume any humor and subtly seduce his prey into Volpone’s traps, even as he sets his own. And yet as in any good fable, the ending must surprise.
Volpone, more perhaps than any other Jonsonian comedy, takes risks in its concluding scenes, stretching comedy to its limit as the tricksters dangerously over-reach themselves and slam up against the harsh strictures of Venetian law. In the vice-ridden world that Jonson creates in Volpone, figures of virtue appear to be mostly ineffective. Besides a ridiculously loquacious woman named Lady Politic Would-Be, the play boasts only one other named woman character, the chaste and beautiful Celia, unhappy wife of the jealous Corvino. In a Shakespearean romantic comedy, Celia would probably be a spirited protagonist, witty and clever. In Volpone, although she is a consistent voice for grace, she figures mainly as the helpless victim of her husband’s jealousy and Volpone’s lust. In this play, the vice-ridden characters have both the energy and the power, and they are foiled not by forces of good but by themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BEN JONSON (1572–1637) was one of the greatest poets and playwrights of the English Renaissance. Born in London and apprenticed to a bricklayer, Jonson by his twenties was making his living as a writer. He wrote numerous plays for the theatre; most of them were satirical comedies, such as Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1616). Set in bustling urban spaces, these dramas skewered the vices and follies of social climbers and those who lacked manners, learning or self-knowledge. Jonson also authored several tragedies set in ancient Rome as well as poems and masques—royal entertainments that honored the monarch, James I, before whom they were performed. Jonson never went to university, but he was exceedingly proud of his learning. In 1616 he published a large and beautiful folio edition of his plays, poems and masques modeled on the great Renaissance editions of classical writers. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Jonson wrote a dedicatory poem for the much more modest 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s works produced seven years after his death by members of his acting company. In this poem, Jonson noted that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” but he generously praised his fellow playwright as “the soul of the age/The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!” In his later years, a fire destroyed Jonson’s library and many of his own manuscripts, and he was weakened by illness. He died a poor man and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a gravestone that simply says: “O rare Ben Jonson.”
—Jean E. Howard |George Delacorte Professor of the Humanities, Columbia University